We just ARE who we ARE

When I was younger, I thought we made ourselves into who we are, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that we come into the world exactly who we are, and the world does what it will do to us — but who we are was there from the beginning. And so I peer intently into my grandchildrens’ eyes…..Oliver, there from the start, exactly who he is. Ilan, there he is, I will know him always. Lucy, our delight and laughing glory, present from the get-go. And funny little mannerisms, I notice those too — physical examples of the same inner self that’s present. (And for that matter, my own children are who they’ve always been. It’s the most remarkable thing to realize. They were always there, right from the beginning, and I didn’t quite realize this yet.)

And I have always been who I am. Of course. I could be nothing else. I didn’t choose these things, we don’t choose these things, they just are. We just are. I’ve been reading Anne Carson every morning (Plainwater, at the moment, lingering with my morning coffee), and as she is trained as a classicist, there are references to Sokrates [her spelling], and Sappho, and in other works, Autobiography of Red, Herakles and Geryon. I have to regularly read The Odyssey, and I cannot wait to read An Odyssey. If you want to talk about Dante, I have a fondness for the John Ciardi translation, since it was the first one I read when Katie was a baby, but the newer translation by the Hollanders is so remarkable it’s my favorite.

When I was eight years old (-ish), I saw a commercial on television for a set of records that I wanted SO BADLY. I wanted to claw out my thigh muscles, I wanted them so badly. So I begged my dad to order them for me, with a promise to pay him back out of my allowance — which I did, and it took me a couple of years. When they arrived in the mail I was beside myself with excitement. I ran downstairs to my bedroom and played them on my junkie little record player (not a Fisher Price, but not much more than that) and 51 years later I still remember how that music made me feel. How huge. How outside-of-language. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know anything about it except how it made me feel.

Somehow, I have NO idea how, I still have the set.

Looks pretty good for 51 years old!
the selections

When I look at the records themselves, I see that I had clear favorites: Beethoven’s Symphony in C; Swan Lake; Peer Gynt (which I would go on to introduce my children to, with a fun game); Die Fledermaus (which I would go on to play in orchestra, on my flute, such a fun little part to play). Those tracks are worn down, and I can close my eyes and remember exactly how they made me feel. I was eight, I didn’t have any understanding of them AT ALL, didn’t know what they were, didn’t know the composers (or that there were “composers”), but they made me feel something big that I couldn’t put in words, and I needed them. I needed them badly enough to endure the cost.

My mother hated me for it, and told me over and over that I was just pretending to like it. That I was just “being that way,” which was so confusing to me because I had no idea what way I was “being” except for myself . . . but it was clearly shameful, and showing off, and acting as if I was something I wasn’t. My love of books was also a shameful thing, and among other reasons she shamed me for it, one terrible thing was that I chose reading over being with her and what pathetic priorities I had. So I became as tiny as I could. I hid my books and crawled underneath my bed with them, pulling myself as far back into the corner as I could, tucking pillows along the edge so I’d have warning if she came into my room so I could hide the book before she found me. Every year I won the school award for having read the most books, and I burned with the shame of that, and was grateful that she never came to the school for those ceremonies. I waited until she left the house to listen to my records, and I felt so much shame. Why did I need such shameful things?

She did her job very well, because it’s something I still, to this day, have to resist. The tug is very small at this point, but it’s always there. When I want to share my love of the kind of books I love, for example, I flinch a little bit at her shaming of me. And then, since I’m fifty-fucking-eight years old and have done a lot of work, of course I talk about them anyway. I don’t care, or judge you, if you don’t like Sophocles and Antigone and Homer. I don’t care if you’ve never read Dante, or Melville. I don’t care if you don’t have favorite passages of poetry, if you don’t have an impulse to name your home after a little phrase from a book by James Joyce. I don’t care! YOU BE YOU!! I just have to be me, too.

I was mindful of this when my kids were little, and tried to encourage whatever they were interested in, but this is a privilege of being a grandmother: I’m that much further down the road with it and now I stare into them and HAVE to encourage them to be exactly who they are, whoever that will be. I want to help them more than anything else in this world. They will be who they are, and that’s the most important thing in this whole world to me. I need them to be exactly who they are. They need to be exactly who they are. It’s not like I’ll be fighting their moms and dads — my kids are absolutely wonderful parents, encouraging their children — and whoo boy do they have an ally in their Pete. The kids are very little right now, all under the age of four, but when they start needing to be themselves more loudly, they’re going to find me grinning at them, begging them to come out and play.

Lucky me. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.

You Can’t Escape from What You Are

Vincent Cassel // “You can’t escape from what you are.”
That image came up in my Instagram feed (the account is Nitch, and it’s reliably a source of something to pause and think about) and indeed, the quote accompanying it made me stop and think. It’s the verb he chose — ‘escape’ — that’s really the point, as if (my first thought) who you are is something bad. (I’ll come back to that.) I had a kind of instinctive reaction, a defense of self, and the size of my reaction also made me pause. WHOA, what’s that about. Why you gotta be so mad, Queenie?

So I sat with that for a while. You can’t escape from WHAT you are. Hmm. Not who you are — maybe who is a more socially constructed idea, the roles and parts we play — but what you are, and maybe that’s your essence, your unlanguaged center, the you that perhaps you think is bad, or too much, or too inelegant, or too chaotic, or too wild, or too [fill in your own blank]. Maybe that’s what we try to escape from. And in fact, that’s one thing culture does to/for us. We are tamed. We learn to wait (but we don’t want to wait!). We learn to take turns and share (but that’s mine!). We learn to wait for food. We learn to lie down even though we want to run and jump. We learn the discipline of focus and studying. And we learn the shared cultural knowledge, the stories we agree to believe in, the roles that are acceptable for us as a function of the culturally relevant variables. We learn what’s expected of us. We learn what’s in our realm of possibles. All of that learning is intended, among other things, to shape the what of us. Some of it is agreeable, some of it isn’t, and some we finally decide to reject. But we have been civilized in the process, and our wildness might get the corners knocked off. A bit. (But not permanently, I believe.)

What was I, in the beginning? I was a quiet girl, a serious girl, a girl who only wanted to read. I was an awkward girl, inelegant, clumsy. I was not a girl who made noise, who was rambunctious, who wanted to push envelopes. I did not like to play, and in fact couldn’t figure out how to do that. In part my environment played a role in this, but honestly I also think it’s what I am. Then and now I am a quiet person, a serious person, a person who loves to read, who does not make noise, who isn’t rambunctious, who doesn’t know how to play. As a young girl of 5 or 6 I wanted to be a paleontologist. The disciplines varied, but always I wanted to be a scientist, and always asked for (but never got) a microscope for Christmas. During a brief period of reading the Cherry Ames, Student Nurse books when I was 8, I wanted to be a nurse, but that was short-lived. Too much poop. I always wanted a future in a lab, surrounded by the stuff of science. I never drew or colored or painted; it was science for me as long as I can remember. Books. Lab equipment. Serious conversations. Academia. Not motherhood, ever, but more as a conscious choice borne of my quivering fear of not being able to avoid being like my own parents.

I tried so hard to escape what I was, and did a pretty good job of it. I was a very unpopular girl, in part because I was the smart girl (still not an easy place for young girls) — so I tried to be dumb. I tried so hard to fail, I remember consciously trying to fail in 3rd and 4th grades, thinking then maybe people would like me. I tried to escape my seriousness by making fun of myself and calling myself names, mocking myself, belittling the very things I valued, like my openness to the world. I tried to escape my seriousness by hiding it away because I didn’t feel strong enough to talk back to those who told me not to be so serious all the time. To take a joke. I played the clown, I played the dumb girl, I played the dumb woman. (Sort of.)

And the ‘sort of’ really matters, because it’s not a black and white story. At 36 I started college, and knew that I wanted to go all the way through to a PhD . . . which I did. And never made a single B, the whole time. Not one, and while raising three children. But I didn’t pursue neuroscience, which is what I really wanted (my first wish), because I didn’t think I was smart enough. And I didn’t pursue philosophy, which is also what I really wanted (my second wish), because it seemed impractical, and I had a family. And so I pursued psychology, which felt doable (surely I’d be smart enough) and practical (ha!!!). Still, though, I didn’t allow myself to be serious, and because my performance was so good (I just worked hard!) I blew myself off, minimized myself (I just worked hard!).

What am I, really? What am I, still? What remains of the me I was, what is the me that has developed? I’m winking at my crone years now, my wild woman in the wood years, my white-haired years, and it’s time. If not now, when? Time to quit trying to escape from what I am. My youngest grandchild, my beautiful granddaughter Lucy, turns 1 TODAY. I’ve waited long enough.

three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

three things: the American West, dancing in the living room, and Mexican literature

FEED: Since the new government seems intent on destroying the physical world, I need to remember this:

View of Valley from Mountain, “Canyon de Chelly” National Monument, Arizona (Ansel Adams)

I have camped in that canyon and gotten horribly, blistery sunburned riding mountain bikes over a Fourth of July holiday weekend, but the place was gorgeous. There was a new moon, so the vast, black night skies were filled with the Milky Way and I will never forget lying there watching it wheel through the enormous sky. The world can be so so beautiful, and it’s definitely worth fighting for.

SEED: Yesterday was a cold, brilliant day. Even though he has a terrible cold, Marc thought it was important enough to add another body to the crowd that he joined me at the LGBT Rally at the Stonewall Monument in the West Village. After the rally, I made a big pot of Moroccan chickpea soup, and while I was tending to it, this song came up on my playlist (“Only Love,” by k.d. lang — give it a play while you’re here, it’s such a beautiful song):

Although I’m not a very good dancer at all, I love to dance and do it at home when I’m alone. My first husband used to dance with me in the living room and I’ve missed that because Marc will not dance. Not ever, not anywhere. But there’s something so sweet about just dancing with your husband in the midst of your home. I understand Marc; like me, he is a very socially anxious person and in fact he’s much more socially anxious than I am. This is a place we can connect with each other. But the day had been so lovely, and the soup smelled so good, and so I grabbed him and dragged him up, put one earbud in his ear and one in mine and put my arms around him and told him we were going to dance. “All you have to do is just hang on to me and sway to the music a little.” He felt anxious, I could feel it in him, but I closed my eyes and held on tight and felt the music and cried.

Maybe, slowly, with patience, I can help him grow a little. That’s what it’s really about, spending a life with someone.

READ: In this time of nationalism and closing of borders (and not just in this now-insane country, of course) it’s time to read translations. I love reading translations, and some of my favorite books are translated, but how is it that I’ve never read a Mexican writer? Lithub posted a list of 15 books by Mexican writers and nope, haven’t read a one. Have you read any of them? Or another one that’s not on the list? I’d love to get a recommendation if you have one.

Foreign films, watch those too. My friend Jeff is on a Pedro Almodovar spree (I need to get on that spree too and rewatch them all….). So, while we’re at it, do you have a favorite Mexican director? Actor?

I’ll say one thing about this time of fear and insanity. I feel very much alive. I feel very connected to other people. I hate the cause, but love this specific effect. Happy Sunday, y’all. <3

my own pink cardigan

My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).

One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.

I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”

“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”

I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.

It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.

I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.

contradictions

Time to snip the tiniest little bit from Leaves of Grass (go here to read it in full if you don’t own a copy, but I recommend you have your own copy — with you, always):

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Even though I love this poem, and this bit of it specifically, and even though I believe it as one of the truest things I know, I still struggle to remember it, because my multitudes frequently contradict each other and pull at me and my sense of identity: I’m this. I’m that. No wait, I’m this.

blue moonThe evening of the blue moon, I had an extraordinary experience and I’m not sure how to talk about it. I’m not even sure of the meaning yet, so I’m not ready to talk about that aspect either. But essentially it was a deeply spiritual experience, and it required me to be open to the world in a specific way that has sadly become uncomfortable to me since I entered my PhD program back in 2000. It was led by a friend of mine who has strong Native American Alaska Athabascan heritage, and it drew, I believe, on many of the rituals and songs of her culture. Her incredible use of her drum and rattles, and burning sage, and whooshing wind from a feather fan, and her amazingly strong voice singing and calling — all while our eyes were covered as we sat outside in the dark — was disorienting and deeply personal and moving.

As I drove home later, thinking about everything that had happened within me, I was trying to reconcile being a logical, rational person trained in the scientific method, and a spiritual person open to the larger world that goes far beyond that. I found myself thinking, “Oh, I’ll be that flowing spiritual person.” [silly] The funny thing is that I have no problem appreciating the flowing-together of science and spirituality. Richard Feynman said,

I have a friend who’s an artist…He’ll hold up a flower and say…”I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty…I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more…I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty… The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color…the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds.

I believe that! With all my heart! It’s my own very regular experience, even. I’m not sure why my default automatic response is to insist on either-or categories, when a moment’s reflection reminds me that there are so few absolutes I believe in that I can’t even think of one at the moment.

It’s funny how my mind moves out to the superficial when I encounter a conflict like this — kind of ‘presentation of self’ stuff. I’m pretty smart and thoughtful and love talking about big things, love extremely intelligent people, and feel most comfortable there. So when I came face to face with my openness to a more spiritual world, my superficial thoughts were about how to dress. Loose, flowy, specific jewelry and hair vs more tailored. Isn’t that silly? I think it’s just a top-level entry to bringing myself to thinking about how these different ways of approaching the world can live together in a deeper way. My kind of clothes with specific jewelry and hair. Rational and intelligent and scientifically minded and open and understanding Big Things that you come to through ritual and guides.

One clear thing that happened in that experience kind of cracked my heart, and I can talk about it. So very clearly I saw that I’m a tightly closed person, tense, scared. It surprised me (and it surprised me how true it is) because this is an area in which I have grown  so much. When I started therapy in New York back in 2005, my primary goal was to stop being a terrified person in the world. So when you are at, say, 0% of something, 50% looks amazingso dazzling you can hardly believe it. But it’s only 50%, it’s not time to stop. I have a lot of opening to do. I have a lot of guards to let down.

Perhaps my friends and loved ones would argue with me, no, you’re not closed, you’re open. But maybe they wouldn’t (except for Dixie of course, who loves me with soul-filled eyes and heart). Maybe they’re aware of my tightly guarded borders. Luckily I have people in my life who model the very parts of myself I’m struggling to become and remain open to. We’re all our own unique combination of bits, and contradictions, and so none of my models have the same amalgam of things I do, but that’s more than fine.

Thanks, beautiful blue moon, and thank you, my friend, and there’s nothing to wait for anymore. Time to do it.

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who are you?

So many things become clear and obvious the older you get. The problem is that it would be much better if they were clear when you’re younger. Stupid time.

I wish we all understood from the time we’re tiny that all we can be is who we are. That that’s who we’re here to be, what we’re here to do. That trying to be like others is a waste of time — but more, a loss. I wish I had understood that, but that’s OK. I think I understand it now.

Before I Leave the Stage, Alice Walker

Before I leave the stage
I will sing the only song
I was meant truly to sing.

It is the song
of I AM.
Yes: I am Me
&
You.
WE ARE.

I love Us with every drop
of our blood
every atom of our cells
our waving particles
—undaunted flags of our Being—
neither here nor there.

Last month at book club I was telling the story of my great-aunt Bea. Her father sold her, when she was 14, to an older, horrible man for the price of a horse.  A few years later, Bea shot her husband when he was crawling through the kitchen window threatening—once again—to kill her. She told him that if he came in through the window she’d shoot him. He came in through the window. She shot him, on March 5, 1946. Bea was tried and found not guilty; in the small north Texas town where they lived, everyone knew her husband and knew Bea’s story. She certainly was not guilty.

bea story

Bea was an original, in every way. She was a barrel rider in the rodeo (not so unusual in North Texas). She dressed and walked like a man (extremely unusual in North Texas in the 1950s and 60s). She said exactly what she thought and didn’t care what you thought about it (for a woman in the south/Texas, very usual). She raised her son alone, then lived with her sister for a few decades before getting married again . . . her choice, this time.  Who is it we remember when we think of that family? The quiet, meek women who did exactly and only what was expected of them? Who shaped themselves to the roles they were assigned by family, by their time, by their culture? Nah. In my family we remember Bea. We talk about Bea. And it’s not about committing murder — it’s not about being a “bad girl.” It’s just about being very true to who you are inside, and just being that, as Bea did.

actingWhen I was a girl, I was very inward and quiet. Very serious. I learned to talk very fast and smile smile smile and accommodate myself to stay safe, and that became a habit. But it always felt like acting (acting!). It served me well in so many ways, but it did not feel like me. Now I find myself returned back to myself, and coming back inward. Coming back to quiet, and serious. The thing is, if you’ve been untrue to yourself and then find your way back to being who you truly are, some people might not like it. And maybe it’s just because it’s different, you’re not who they knew you to be. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Be who you are. Be who you are. Know who that is, and be it. The world needs you to be that, it’s really what you came here to do, to be. If you just live long enough, you might figure out that you already knew the important things.